We all want the same things. Happiness. Love. Health. Me, I’m a fine-tuner, a tweaker. I once read a birthday book that described January 1 people as chronic self-improvers. It’s the word chronic that has me suspecting that the inference might not have been positive. Whichever position the book was taking on it, it did nail me. That is my nature in a nutshell. When the lug nuts are loose, on my life, my soul, my character, I tighten them. The thing is, the little suckers do get loose again; that’s just the normal wear and tear of living. I can either keep my tools at the ready in order to re-tighten and keep going, or I can beat myself up for not doing the job right in the first place. Even though the definition of doing the job right – when regards a lug nut – does not guarantee that it’ll never have to be tightened again. In fact, the only thing that is guaranteed is that it will. And yet that is where I get seriously tripped up.
Let’s take today. My first completely non-agenda day in more than a week. Very stressful week prior, and I’ve been looking forward to this day, all week long, of powering-down and blissfully thinking of nothing. I’ll just give a few bullet points on how this “day off” unfolded.
I wake up this morning – no alarm clock – and instantly, instinctively, ritualistically, catch my naked form in the mirrored closet door that spans the wall’s entire length and width. Judgment. Instant. Merciless. Am I bigger than yesterday? Smaller? I do this assessment every single morning, because I’m perpetually trying to lose weight. It’s so routine, in fact, that I’m not even shattered by it anymore. What I am, though, is unhappy. I will at least give myself this much credit; I no longer talk disgustedly about my weight gain. These days, when I do speak of my desire or my efforts to lose weight, it is with a conscious gentleness. I just can’t be the one who starts a frenzy of self-loathing among my women friends of a similar age, most of whom are trying to lose their middle-aged weight too. I’ve seen it happen, and have even been the instigator of that soul-crushing domino effect of “my disgusting arms, my disgusting belly,” but no longer am I the one who starts or participates in that avalanche. Make no mistake, though; I am not happy. I wish I could let go of an idea of how I used to look, and embrace where I am today. That has been a great challenge. And where I find myself divided to points of utter hair-pulling confusion is: Do I believe in embracing self-acceptance of my present, or do I believe in going after goals? Or is there a way for both concepts to work together for the benefit of body AND soul? I actually do practice a radical self-care lifestyle. I eat whole, clean food, I hydrate like crazy, I walk and hike and do yoga, I meditate, I make certain to get some nature time in, I have therapeutic and creative outlets. I am so much healthier, and feel so much better, in this lifestyle, yet still I judge myself everyday for not looking like I used to. Such a miniscule part of the whole schematic, yet I make it larger than everything else. That particular lug nut gets loose an awful lot. I catch myself in the mirror and furiously try to dissect why my body changed the way it did. Menopause! Laziness! Depending on the day of the week or my mood, there’s a different culprit to blame. And so, the ritual of judgment. Every day. And today, my DAY OFF, is no different.
Next I check email. Brush my teeth. May not shower today since I have no obligation to leave my house. Still, a twinge of guilt hits me at this decision. I should take a shower. I don’t feel like it. I’m utterly exhausted from a busy and emotional week (a dear friend was in the hospital), and I won’t be encountering anyone today, so why should I care so much about a shower? Yet the twinge lasts. Apparently not enough to make me turn the nozzle and hop in, but just enough to make me annoyed with myself, and harshly critical at what I have decided is laziness and apathy.
I start breakfast with my second annoyance of the day already in gear and it’s barely 10 a.m. Leftover ginger soup, made with turkey bone broth, and fresh spinach tossed in. Yummy. I should walk today. That’s my mode of exercise. Vigorous walks through my lovely neighborhood, or hiking the nearby canyon. But I can’t think about that right now. Really very tired. My soup is so delicious, and I love the smells it puts in my home. I don’t smell! Why can’t I shake the shower thing? I’m home alone. Why does it matter? Mmmmm, savory ginger soup. I should really walk. Goddamn it! See?
I’m already exhausted from the ludicrous back flips my thoughts are doing, all while trying to eat my breakfast. I should sit in silence and eat my food mindfully. Uh oh, is that another should ? And if you read my blog article, Mindful Eating, you’ll know why this is even in my head. But I don’t sit in silence. I turn on the TV to Kelly & Michael. It’s my morning ritual on days when I have to go to my part-time office job two days a week. On those mornings I bop around getting cleaned and dressed, making breakfast and feeding the cat, all while Kelly’s and Michael’s sparkling repartee provides white noise. I don’t tend to do the ritual on days off. I prefer a quieter morning ritual on those days, a ritual more befitting my Mindful Eating essay. Except that today my brain is romping like crazy, so I’m looking for television’s dynamic duo to help distract my head while I sip my ginger broth. Of course the guilt arises that I am giving any amount of my morning to this vapid time-waster. So, now I am killing two birds with one stone, as I judge both the TV show and my indulgence in it. I’m on a roll. I need a day off from my day off.
I don’t need to give you the full play-by-play of the remainder of my day. You get the gist. Nothing much actually happened, which was exactly the point of the day, and yet by the end of it I was thoroughly spent from all the noise. My head was so filled with guilt, and judgment, and shoulds, and the niggling pressure to DO something, and the harshly critical indictment that I even chose to have a down day, as if it is something shameful. Because what are we, as Americans, if not putting all our value in doing and accruing, as opposed to just being? Meditation always helps. But even just getting myself to the proverbial mat is really tough when a day like this occurs. Today it was impossible.
I can’t say I don’t know where the penchant to punish comes from. I do. I have made a decent but very humble living for a long time now, all the while trying to get something of mine to burst wide open, whether it’s the music or the books. And my attempts at this have been largely futile. You don’t deserve a day off, my inner imp whines at me. You need to get in that corner and do some thinkin’, young lady, about all the missed opportunities and wasted potential. And you need to nitpick at everything. And so . . . I punish.
Take the DVD I chose to watch later on of this “day off.” Twenty Feet From Stardom deserves the Oscar it won. It’s a powerhouse movie that I’ve been excited to re-see for sometime now. It’s also a movie that takes me to a melancholy place, because of the subject matter. I’m a singer. I’ve made my living at it for a very long time. But if some of the remarkable singers in this movie are, to a certain degree, bemoaning their lot of always being the session and touring singer and never the star, I watch it bemoaning my lifelong inability to reach even THEIR heights of being the sought-after voices for some of the most iconic songs in pop history. My own history, and deeply grateful living, has been quite a ways humbler than that. Most days I’m incredibly happy with the career I’ve had, and the musicians that have given me work as well as their ardent respect. But a movie like this can, on occasion, take me to a pretty dark place. So, why would I even choose to see it a second time? The easy answer is because it’s a wonderful movie. But is it purely coincidental that I chose to watch this particular movie on my day of chilling out? Or is the pesky little deep-seated self-punishment imp deciding to hang around, brilliant saboteur that she is, and telling me that I have not accomplished enough in my life to deserve to chill? That I need, instead, to be up on my hindquarters in white-knuckle anxiety. Guess what, Miss Thing? You’re not gonna get to relax. You’re gonna exhaust yourself with all the doubts and the what-ifs and why-didn’t’cha’s that can be mustered. Because you SHOULD be further along in life, and shame on you for not being.
By the end of the movie, just as I did when I saw it in the theater, I am in tears, and standing up and applauding these women of extraordinary talent and their compelling stories (my own cousin being one of them . . . an original member of The Blossoms, who did every major vocal session in the 50’s and 60’s). I am deeply moved by these stories. I am also taken to my couch. And not in the good way, the hammock and a good book and a mason jar of lemonade kind of way that is exactly what a day off should be. Nope. I am taken to it in that crippling, fetal position way that fears life passing me by without having left the mark I’ve always felt was my calling to leave.
Likewise, I’ve managed to get nothing going with my book. I have three of them already out there, but the latest is really THE book. The one I feel is my opus. And except for a handful of dear friends and awesome moral supporters, it has gone largely unread and unknown. I keep trying to say that I’m not lazy. Hey, I produce content, baby. Six albums, as many full-length books, a one-woman show. That canon does not get produced by a slacker. I keep trying to say that something else is the reason I’ve never gotten any real shots. But after exhausting all other possibilities, and coming up with no clear answers, I think I may, after all, be lazy. I’m certainly tired. Everything I have to give goes into what I create (which, ironically, never tires me). But after all of that, there’s just nothing left over to give to hustling, and promotion, and marketing, and going out into the world, and meeting and networking, and being witty and quick and charming and all those things that seem to be what is required to get anyone to give you and your work the time of day. I don’t have it in me. It’s not in my nature. And from one day to the next, as I am on this constant road of self-examination, my tune is either that I’m genuinely at peace with my nature, and am happy with the blessed life that this nature has given me, and I clearly see the power and beauty and enlightenment in that . . . to believing . . . No. Get up. Do. Make it happen. It’s not too late. Don’t collapse now. Collapsing is giving up, and there’s nothing evolved or enlightened in that. And I am split wide open and right down the middle with trying to determine which principle I actually do align with.
The spiritual work that I have been doing has been truly transformational. But spiritual transformation is not a neat and speedy ascension to that higher place. It is a resolute road of one-step-forward-two-steps-back, filled with amazing moments of insight, daily challenges to our better angels, and THIS!!! . . . this “day off” that has just sicked Ronda Rousey on my ass. It’s also not (or at least, should never be) a tyrannical slave labor camp. And that’s where I can sometimes get stymied. My passionate embrace of radical self-care and self-inquiry is so all-encompassing that it even led me to start this blog to explore the vast landscape of that consciousness. But I think that days like this can sometimes happen because I tend to fill my life with stringent standards that I’ll beat myself up about not reaching. And if not managed with some semblance of balance and breath, the whole self-care thing can actually backfire. And by breath I mean that proverbial, symbolic inhale and exhale of not having to be perfect, not having to be in ballet-dancer-upright stance 24/7.
I think that I have given myself so many tasks towards this spiritual evolution (don’t forget to meditate, don’t forget to bless your food, don’t forget to buy organic or grow your own, don’t forget to be of service to others, ad nauseam) that I can begin to crumble under the weight of them. And with the crumbling comes the self-punishment, the why can’t you get your act together? inner talk, when the crumbling is only because of all the weight I have put on my shoulders. But the answer is not to snap the whip when those tasks are not completed. The answer is to remove, I don’t know, maybe a couple hundred of those cinder blocks that I’ve heaped on my shoulders. Because otherwise, one of two things happen. I either crumble into that fetal position, self-berating and sinking into depression in reaction to the tyrant in me, as I did today, or I implode and rebel against her. So, how do I remove the weight and heft in this journey to be a better me? How do I let go, and let gentleness prevail?
The way to it is through forgiveness. I’ve been writing about forgiveness a lot lately (read Unexpected Angels : A Perspective On Forgiveness), because it is a crucial key to stepping up a little higher on that ascension, that higher realm, and it has truly been tested in the world lately. I find it easily the most important principle to explore, to put into practice, and to understand what it truly means. And I have lately neglected putting those principles into practice on my own self.
If I were someone else talking to Angela, I’d have this wired. I would passionately grab her by the shoulders and say:
“Forgive your body for daring to evolve from young to old. Whatever society says about you because of your age is society’s flaw, not yours. Forgive your efforts for daring to be committed to art, and not marketing. Everyone can’t be everything. Forgive your talents for not getting you certain gigs. They are unique talents, and clearly didn’t belong in those boxes. Maybe there is no box yet created for your gifts. Maybe there never will be. But you keep renewing your agreement with the universe to make sacred art anyway, you keep cultivating your own unique voice, and you let the rest go. Forgive your needy, needy need to reach a certain status in order to be acceptable to society, and your human moments of faltering in the mission to elevate yourself in consciousness. Your life is so beautiful, with friends and family that rival most folks’ friends and family any day of the week. You have love in your life. You have food on your table. You have health and wellness and compassion. You have a curious brain and a heart eager to evolve in spiritual consciousness. You have a very special gift as a creator of books and music and art. You deserve a day off. To sleep in, to read your juicy book, to watch vapid TV, to walk on the beach, to surf the net, to look into the mirror and love your magnificent vessel that has carried you through fifty-five years on this earth in effortless mastery. It has even saved someone’s life! So, take that, Self-loathing Thomas (lesser known and even more deep-seated brother to Doubting)! You deserve a day off to do absolutely nothing except swing on that proverbial hammock with that mason jar of lemonade and CHILL. And to know that you are not less to do so.”
Forgiving ourselves for not being perfect specimens may be the hardest thing we ever do. We all have a wart or two, or ten, don’t we? We try to buff those warts up, better them, put a little spit shine on them. Or we try to tuck them away and pretend they aren’t there. We rationalize them, justify them, or we self-berate, as I spent an entire day off doing. But it really all comes down to this: We can transform, evolve, improve who we are, learn something new every day, open our hearts, practice compassion, and yet at the end of the day we are still not perfect specimens in 24/7 upright ballet-dancer stance. We aren’t designed to be. And so all of those rough edges, the warts, the fears and guilt and defenses that still insist on lingering there, even with all the soul work we may do – that’s where forgiveness comes in. That’s where we’re tested to see if we can love and embrace every part of ourselves. Because every part has a role to play in shaping who we are, and how we walk in the world.
As for my day off, well, it came and went, and my world didn’t crumble. It just left me a whole lot more exhausted than any day off should. But I ended it with pouring this onto paper. That’s something. A stab, always, at trying to work it out. Trying to listen to the higher voice. Trying to be understanding and patient when the lug nuts loosen. Hey, all that really means is that the tire covered a whole lot of great road. And I truly am okay as long as I’ve got my tools.
I suspect I make some uncomfortable when I write about my humanness in such a public forum. But please don’t mistake this, ever, for self-immolation. It is the voice of rigorous honesty, of getting really, really real, and coming out on the other side.
One more quick story, but it’ll tell you everything about my penchant for this kind of writing. When I was an early teen, I saw a movie where a band of ski-masked looters burst into a fancy gala, and held the entire party up with rifles, and had everyone strip down to their delicates, so that their jewels, furs, and wallets could be raided. It was a scene that mortified me, and has remained as a lodged nugget of anxiety in the back of my brain ever since. This idea of being exposed, of having all of one’s bodily flaws and secrets stripped down for everyone else in the room to judge, laugh at, and shame. Here’s the light bulb though. Everyone else in the room is in the exact same vulnerable circumstance, even if, in that instant for you, there is only you. I’ve revisited that scene so often that it’s beyond counting, and yet I can’t even recall the film itself. Telling our stories is a bit like that. If we’re honest, we expose more than what advances the agenda of being totally together. And while that idea can be terrifying, it is also brave to do so in this present culture of spin and image consciousness. And a remarkable unburdening has the chance to occur, because the world of public opinion will instantly assure us that we are not alone. And by that process, we are not only unburdened, but connected. For me, there is no greater purpose in telling our stories.
There isn’t a breakthrough in existence that isn’t accompanied by some aches and pains, but what comes out with us on that other side, always, is freedom. A freedom worth cultivating and renewing and re-tightening every single day. That’s my healing motif. The voice I’ve cultivated. I believe it can be of benefit to others too. That’s why I write.
J.M.W. Turner understood that. I saw his works at the Getty recently, and was blown away by the naked pain, and storms (as symbolic as they were literal), that he portrayed. And yet, his way with light is startling. That is the way with light, isn’t it? What does Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem say? There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
Photo credit: Drea Rewal for Timestamp Photography
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.